Artists in Love: Michael Mayer assembles an all-star cast for his version of Chekhov's signature drama, 'The Seagull'

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Two Tony winners—The Humans playwright Stephen Karam and Spring Awakening director Michael Mayer—have teamed up for a sort of Human Awakening—the first film flight of The Seagull in 50 years. Anton Chekhov’s 1896 play was the first to present Life as we know it—sans the melodrama—and it changed theatre forever.

Mayer believes Chekhov, were he alive today, would be knocking out screenplays. Film, he feels, is the medium that catches the subtlety, intimacy and naturalism in which his characters thrived, and, to this end, Mayer and Karam have conspired to create a kind of cinematic Chekhov, where a look can speak louder than a line.

“Stephen and I worked very closely on the adaptation for months and months,” Mayer recalls. “We read through it a lot. We talked about how little dialogue we can get away with. That was the challenge—how much we can do without dialogue.

“We cut a fair amount. There are elements of the play where the purpose that the dialogue serves is just to make the theatre experience more functional. It was not necessary to comment on the action when we could see for ourselves, so we cut it.

“There’s so much internal emotional stuff going on with these characters subtextually, that a close-up is a godsend. That’s one of the things you can do so well on film that you can’t do onstage. There is no such thing as a close-up in the theatre. I constantly wanted to embrace the cinematic elements that would lift the story—differentiate it from the ways that you would try to highlight moments on the stage.”

As a result, this Seagull clocked in at an unprecedented 98 minutes. The last one—directed by Sidney Lumet in 1968—weighed a full 141 minutes, to give you an idea.

“I didn’t remember it being that long,” Mayer admits. He saw it in 2000 when he was directing Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya on Broadway. Tony Walton, who did the sets and costumes for the play, did the same elegant double duty for Lumet’s film. It was glamorously cast with James Mason, Vanessa Redgrave, David Warner, a game if gratingly miscast and irretrievably French Simone Signoret and Denholm Elliott.

Mayer’s pack of Russian summer campers is played by a roster of solid theatre names, some of whom have risen in prominence since the film was completed.

It was shot in a breathtaking 21 days in the summer of 2015 and has been in film vaults marinating ever since. Sony Pictures Classics brings it to theatres on May 11.

“The three actresses who star in it are very much in the public awareness right now, so it worked out much better than if it had come out last year,” Mayer notes, pointing to Saoirse Ronan of Lady Bird, Elisabeth Moss of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”and Annette Bening of 20th Century Women and Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.

Bening plays an aging actress who returns to the country estate she shares with her ailing brother (Brian Dennehy) and neurotic son (Billy Howle), a novice playwright trying—in vain, it turns out—to impress Mommy with his dramatic prowess. He puts on a show for her starring his girlfriend from the neighboring farm (Ronan). Not only does it not go well, the girlfriend strays to the camp of his mother’s lover (Corey Stoll), who dallies, dismisses and destroys. Chekhov called it a comedy.

The first actor onboard was Bening, who had played that exact role while a student at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater. She also played a comparable Chekhov character on stage in L.A. in The Cherry Orchard a few years ago, so she was gung-ho for the project. It helped that she and Mayer had come close to working before—on a play called Female of the Species—but family obligations interfered.

“Some time after that,” says Mayer, “I found myself in Los Angeles, and I just went over to her house for Chinese food. We were in her kitchen, and I pitched it. I said, ‘What would you think about this?’ And she said, ‘Sure. It sounds great,’ thinking it would never happen. Like, ‘Who’s going to raise money for a film like this?’ But, with her involved, we got some fabulous actors and producers to make it happen.” 

A reading of Karam’s adaptation was held at New York’s Public Theater. Bening came in from L.A., Ronan came from Ireland and Stoll came from across town.

“We weren’t really trying to cast it—we just wanted to put the most interesting people in it—but, from that moment on, Saoirse and Corey were who we wanted.”

Howle auditioned in London with Bening and was then brought over with a very small handful of other actors for the final casting rounds. “He just felt like Annette’s son to us,” Mayer says. “We really believed that relationship. It was his first movie, so it was a little bit of a risk. I was really proud of his performance in this film.”

The actor has since gone on to Dunkirk and gone back for seconds with Saoirse Ronan in On Chesil Beach. He also played another troubled mama’s boy in Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts on the London stage and at Brooklyn’s BAM, opposite Lesley Manville.

The Seagull has always been Mayer’s favorite Chekhov. “I think it’s because it’s the one I have the most connection to, personally. When I was in the graduate acting program at NYU, my best experiences as an actor were working on scenes from The Seagull. I’m not saying I was good. I was probably bad. But, for myself, it was a deep experience, and I felt I understood a lot about acting from working on that material.”

Thomas Hulce, the Oscar-nominated Amadeus to F. Murray Abraham’s Oscar-winning Salieri, produced this Seagull (and Spring Awakening) and also played the suicidal son in The Seagull in a regional production where his co-star told him of a Seagull she’d been in that started in the fourth act and flashbacked to the start.

“Tom thought it was more of a filmic idea, and I took a real shine to the concept of it,” Mayer says. In fact, he credits that flashback with jumpstarting this remake.

The film was shot in a beautiful old manor house on Arrow Lake in Monroe, NY. It was built in 1909, about the same time as The Seagull, and it was picture-perfect for the picture. “Our production designer, Jane Musky, who is of Russian descent, remembered this house from vacationing with her parents when she was a little girl. It was owned by Russian immigrants. Russian-American families went there for the summer. Then, it was ‘Russian Farm.’ Now it’s the Arrow Park Lake and Lodge.

“Once we found the location, Stephen Karam and I could adjust the screenplay to accommodate great fluidity from one scene to another. As soon as we knew what the layout was, then we could go, like, ‘Oh, that scene now should take place in the solarium.’ It’s the solarium that connects to the living room that connects to the hallway that connects to the breakfast room that connects to the porch that goes down to the lake. We could do this continuous shot. For the most part, we ended up sculpting the screenplay to fit the dynamic of that house, which got a lot done fast.”